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Harold Maurice Abrahams

(1899—1978) athlete and civil servant


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Eric Liddell (1902—1945) missionary and athlete

 

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(1899–1978) An English athlete and athletics administrator, who both epitomized and challenged the prevailing ethos of amateurism. Born in Bedford, England, Abrahams was the youngest of four sons of Isaac Klonimus (1850–1921), an immigrant to Britain from Russian-occupied Poland who declared his origins to be those of a Lithuanian Jew. Klonimus changed his name to Abrahams (the given name of his father) in 1880. His son Harold attended Cambridge University, studying law at Gonville and Caius College, already an accomplished athlete, holder of the national public schoolboy titles in the long jump and the 100 yards (the ‘dash’). In his time at Cambridge he won an unprecedented number of sprint races and jumping events, and, after completing his Cambridge studies, won the 100-metres gold medal at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, prepared under the intense and rigorous tutelage of his north-east English coach, French Arab Sam Mussabini. Abrahams retired from competitive athletics the following year, having sustained an injury in an attempt to beat his own English long-jump record, which was to survive for more than thirty years.

On retirement, Abrahams took up a career in law, also engaging—with widespread influence nationally and internationally—in athletics administration, broadcasting on the sport for the BBC, and working in economic policy during World War II, and in urban planning. From 1950 to 1963, he was secretary of the National Parks Commission. In 1954, he was the official who confirmed Roger Bannister's sub-four-minute mile at Oxford University's Iffley Road track. Abrahams's athletic achievements were immortalized in the film Chariots of Fire, which compressed parts of his career into the Cambridge years, and placed an emphasis on a motivating anti-Semitism at the university that was never confirmed by Abrahams himself. The film also pivoted around Abrahams's rivalry with the Scottish runner Eric Liddell.

Abrahams was significant for straddling the amateur–professional divide, in his use of a coach to support his Olympic campaign and victory. In 1948, on the eve of the Olympic Games in London, Abrahams wrote: ‘I was lucky enough in 1924 to win an Olympic title, and I realise to the full that the praise showered upon me was out of all proportion to the occasion. I am not going to pretend that I did not train extremely hard, but I realize to the full that luck played an enormous part.’ Abrahams pleaded for more consideration of and praise for those at the Olympics who did not win. Ironically, given his professionalized approach in the 1920s, he became a bastion of the amateur establishment, though doing much to modernize the format, profile, and administration of athletics.

From A Dictionary of Sports Studies in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.


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